by Natalia Sandoval
Imelda was surprised to find that the address wasn’t a law firm, but the headquarters of the Catholic charity in midtown. But except for the huge cross at the entrance of the massive skyscraper and the few portraits of Pope Francis, there wasn’t much particularly churchy about the place.
“Eleventh floor, sweetheart,” said the kind, chatty Puerto Rican man at the front desk. Imelda hated being sweetheart-ed by men in general. But not by this man. As she entered the elevator, she felt her cell phone vibrating inside her purse again. She stared at the palpitating screen in her hand for a few seconds before she ignored the call for the third time.
Inside the elevator it was crowded but quiet, except for a mother shushing an awfully congested baby in her arms. The enclosed space smelled a mix of dried sweat and Caprice, Imelda’s childhood favorite shampoo. She would have to face her father eventually, just not yet.
All that week, she had lengthy conversations with her father in her mind. Their discussions, even just imaginary, had drained her. The tone varied each time, but the gist of it was always the same: she was a disappointment. As Imelda felt the upward pull of the elevator, and the heavy breathing of the congested baby, she heard her father’s voice clearly.
What’s this thing your mom told me about you quitting your job?
He wouldn’t—couldn’t understand. His life, his childhood, things had been so different for him.
Imelda’s shoulders ached. Que peso. The weight. If her parent’s expectations could be measured in actual kilos, she’d be a weightlifting champion by now. Or maybe he was calling to be supportive?
No. Imelda knew her father too well. He thought he could change her mind. Could he?
She’d always done whatever would make her parents proud. But she was tired. Burnt out. Done. Out.
The number eleven on the dashboard lit up. Imelda and almost everyone else got off, including the lady with the congested baby. The cramped waiting area next to the front desk teemed with people and had a big sign that read: “Immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers are welcome here.” As she walked towards the office, the smell of closely congregated bodies—big and small, slim and bulky, young and old—hit her nose all at once. Imelda felt grateful for her intermittent fasting, which meant she’d intentionally skipped breakfast that morning.
“I’m the volunteer interpreter?”
The lady at the front desk looked at her with tired eyes, smiled briefly, then pointed her to a door.
Maybe I can talk to your boss, tell him that you just had a little breakdown. I can give him my medical perspective. Because this is what this is, Imelda, hija. You’ll see it clearly in a few days. Then you’ll regret having done things so hastily.
Once Imelda passed through the door separating the waiting area from the office space, the place looked like a regular corporate building with cubicles, water coolers and white-collar workers going about their workday. She stood there confused for a few minutes. Until Deborah, the lawyer she was translating for, came to get her. It was nine in the morning. Deborah guided Imelda to the conference room, and told her to wait there. “He should be here any minute,” she said.
Imelda looked at her phone. Celso was fifteen minutes late.
Her phone vibrated again. She hesitated. Maybe she’d answer quickly to tell her father she was in a meeting. It was her mother’s number this time, but she knew it was him.
What kind of meeting? Are you interviewing for a new job?
The father in Imelda’s mind was incredibly narrow-minded. Was it fair? Maybe this anxiety was all hers. He was right. What was she doing? Had she ruined her career? Imelda felt herself sweating profusely. Was it showing through her top? She’d better ask for the restroom before the client arrived.
That morning Celso rose from bed at six. Unlike in Azul del Río, there were no hen-chasing stray dogs or roosters in his part of the Bronx, but the recurring pain in his feet could wake him up every morning all the same. At the hospital, the doctor had explained that his best chance was to try to rewire his brain; to distract himself from the pain by reading or playing games. “It won’t go away,” the doctor had said of his condition. “Es de por vida.” As for painkillers, the relief they provided wasn’t life-changing, at least not in a way that made both the liver damage and the risk of addiction worth it.
Before the incident, the only way he’d known to distract himself from his problems had been to play sports. But that wasn’t an option anymore. Sometimes when he was feeling down, he reminded himself of those early days after he’d just been released from the hospital. At least now he wasn’t as dependent on others. In the two years after those gang members shot him, he taught himself how to move, shower, and get dressed, using only the strength of his upper body. Still, to rely on his sister and brother-in-law for food and cash, or even to get out of the apartment for a quick stroll, made him feel powerless on a daily basis.
It had rained all night, and even though he rarely had nightmares anymore, the sound of thunder kept startling him awake. Between that and the pain in his feet, he had barely slept at all. He felt so tired that he wasn’t sure he would make it to the appointment.
Even before the incident, he preferred to sleep naked. His clothes were already folded by the edge of the bed: red boxers, a pair of basketball shorts, a long-sleeved sports T-shirt and white cotton socks. His pair of sneakers were by the door. He had taken a shower the night before, so he only needed to put on clothes and brush his teeth. Breakfast would have to wait. Celso lowered the thin blanket to his feet and grabbed his legs one by one for a stretch. As he did this, he thought about El Micro, the bus he used to run after (and often jump into) every day after school back in Azul del Río, to commute to his job at the taqueria. His feet, the way they moved now, reminded him of the bobbing dog heads the driver had kept on the dashboard.
Before it happened, he’d never stopped to think about the way his body was connected; that a spine injury could result in the loss of his ability to control his feet and therefore, to walk. He was like a perfectly good car that could no longer steer its wheels.
When the stretch was done, he put on his T-shirt, socks, and shorts. Then he shifted his body with his back to the wheelchair and rolled closer to the edge of the bed, pressing his closed fists on the mattress and lifting, until he was able to grab one armrest first, and then the other. Then with one swift motion, he swung his upper body onto the chair. With his legs still on the bed, he wheeled the chair away from the bed and folded his legs into place. Then, he grabbed his feet one by one and positioned them on the footplates.
Celso missed having his own place in Washington Heights, but, mostly, he missed working towards a concrete goal: sending enough money back home to build two houses, one for his parents and one for himself.
Though his sister’s apartment was on the first level, the four steps connecting their floor to the street made it impossible to wheel himself out without assistance. The neighbors were nice and quick to help, especially the smiley, toothless Dominicano who sat on a plastic chair in the hallway every morning, reading the weekly specials at Food Bazaar.
“Le agradezco mucho, Don Freddy.” He said as the Dominicano helped him to the street that morning. Every time he saw Freddy’s toothless grin, Celso was reminded of his parents back in Azul del Río.
The street in the Bronx smelled of wet trash, not quite like the smell of wet dirt in his hometown during the heavy rains. As he wheeled himself to the bus stop, he thought of the day he’d left his parents eight years before, sitting at the entryway to their shack, so like in Washington Heights the elders on his block spent the summer afternoons people-watching on their stoops.
“Good morning,” the driver said when the bus door folded open. He lowered the platform for Celso. A young woman in scrubs said, “¿Le ayudo?” and wheeled him inside. Celso thanked her and absorbed the sight of the bus; most seats were taken. He always dreaded this part. Sleepy heads rested against windows, closed eyes. “Make some room for him!” yelled the bus driver. The man who sat on the foldable chair, meant to open the space up for his wheelchair, stood up halfheartedly.
The smell of bagels, egg burritos and Dunkin Donuts coffee nauseated him. Celso put on his earbuds, pressed play. Then, like the other passengers, rested his head on the window and closed his eyes. The song was Paloma Negra, a popular song that he had never thought much of when he lived in Mexico. Now hearing that song, his body was filled with warmth, like being wrapped in his mother’s arms and tenderly rocked to sleep.
Celso had just turned twenty when he left for El Otro Lado. His mother had blessed him, “Que dios me lo guarde, mijo,” crossing him and herself so many times, and kissing him so much more on the days leading to his departure, that by the time he left to meet with the coyote, it seemed like all she could do was to stare blankly as he walked away. His father had sat on the red cooler where he kept his two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola—the only thing he drank and, in his village, easier to get a hold of than purified water—with his usual hunched posture and that deep but sunny gaze. His mother sat on a metallic Coca-Cola chair, peeling peanuts and dropping the nuts into a glass jar. On the dirt floor, the hens clucked as they fought over the shells. The ritual had barely started, but Celso knew that once the jar had been filled one-third of the way half an hour later, his mother would pour salt, a few drops of Valentina hot sauce, squeeze a half of a lime in it, and stir everything with a teaspoon. She would then eat the concoction slowly, savoring every spoonful.
He had never intended to stay in the U.S. for long, but he wanted that house. A real house made with cement and a stable, leak-proof roof; with plumbing and water running through its veins and a real stove pumping heat and life like a true heart. His parents dreamed of solid windows and an actual door, unlike the one he’d fashioned with his father out of sheets of steel. They envied their neighbors who’d been able to build a two-story cinder block house using the money their children had sent from abroad.
Once he’d entered the U.S., Celso worked as a sandwich preparer at a trendy coffee shop in SoHo for four years. Until he realized that no matter how hard he worked, he would never get a chance at standing behind the cash register or making those leaf-ornamented lattes. Those jobs were not for illegals. They were reserved for the skater guys with their scruffy, blonde hair and their heavy-metal blasting through the coffee shop speakers; or those Artsy Girls who always looked bored and who said things like, “Yo tomar clase di espaniol in high school.” In their broken Spanish, they confided to him about some roommate-related drama and complained about how expensive Brooklyn had gotten. There were also the stylish morenos, with their funny hats and their ya-know-what-I’m-sayin? At first, he thought it would be easier to relate to them, perhaps because their skin color wasn’t so different from his. But no, they also felt above him. Celso watched them with amusement as they took their selfies and spent their breaks scrolling on their cell phones.
“Ya limpiaste el baño? Es tu turno, güey!”
The skater guys, the Artsy Girls, the morenos and Celso, they all worked at the coffee shop together, but there was an unspoken hierarchy and many things the others would simply not do.
They all used the restroom, but Celso was the only one who actually cleaned it. And when the coffee shop owner decided to start doing deliveries, Celso was the only one willing to do the job. The owner often told him that because he was paid cash, under the table, he was the most expensive one. “The other ones get their share of the tips because they don’t make as much as you after taxes.”
But Celso suspected the Artsy Girls made at least as much as him even if they worked fewer hours. They were also unreliable: whenever they got an audition or a gig, they’d leave the job like it was nothing. Celso envied their carefree attitude. Deep down, he also resented the way they thought they were struggling when most of them had only themselves to worry about. That was not the case for Celso. Every two weeks, he sent home almost his entire pay through Western Union, leaving barely enough to cover his living expenses.
“We’re all in this together, brother,” one of the skater guys said to him while counting the money from the tip jar. The skater guy had just been promoted to manager, even if they all knew it was Celso who kept the place functioning.
Juntos ni que madres, Celso had thought but said nothing, still stung by his discussion with the coffee shop owner, who had once again declined his request to attend the one-day training to become a barista. It wasn’t like he didn’t know how to prepare the coffees. Celso felt like he would be stuck as a sandwich preparer forever. The American dream wasn’t within reach for a guy like him: sin papeles.
That’s when he decided to switch jobs. Once he’d saved enough money to buy his own e-bike, helmet, and a food delivery bag, a friend took him to an interview. Two years later, he was logging the maximum amount of hours for two different apps, for a total of sixty-four hours a week at eleven-fifty an hour.
Seven hundred and thirty-six dollars per week compared to the five hundred and eighty he made at the coffee shop. And, like an Uber driver, now he had the freedom to choose his schedule, which was much better. While it was more dangerous to deliver food, and Celso still didn’t have health insurance, he prayed to God every day and trusted that the Lord would keep him out of harm’s way. Those six years Celso had worked at the coffee shop and then as a deliverista, he’d been able to send home enough money to build one house: his parents’. The full dream had been cut short on the night he was shot.
¿Celso, ya viene en camino?
Imelda’s text message arrived just as Celso pushed the button to indicate that he was getting off. It was already nine and Celso knew it would take him at least thirty more minutes to get to the address. Beads of sweat broke out on his brow. He was running low on cell phone credit, so he decided against texting back Imelda and saved it in case he needed to call her. He breathed a sigh of relief when the bus he was transferring to, arrived a few minutes later.
Neither Deborah nor the office was anything like Imelda had imagined. Each time the point person at the Catholic charity had talked about the pro bono attorney, Imelda had pictured some version of Michelle Pfeiffer in the film I Am Sam. It was ridiculous, she knew, but she couldn’t help it. These Hollywood associations had been imprinted in her mind since childhood. Before Imelda moved to New York City at twenty-one, old releases of American movies at her shabby neighborhood video store had been her only window to the world outside of Mexico. This also explained why as a child and to this day—despite her hometown’s year-round calorón—every time Imelda made a drawing of a house it invariably had a smoky chimney.
Beethoven I-V, Home Alone, Free Willy, Radio Flyer. Now she cringed at the sight of the green spatter on Rotten Tomatoes whenever she looked up the movies she’d watched on repeat growing up. New York had changed her. She was a film snob now, a vegetarian foodie, and a conscious consumer because she’d stopped using Amazon.
But what about her parents? Now whenever she visited them it was harder to agree on what movie to watch on Netflix than on which presidential candidate to vote for. Her father’s film taste hadn’t changed at all. He was still a diehard Steven Seagal fan. But Imelda couldn’t stomach those movies anymore. And since her parents considered film an escape from reality, they wouldn’t watch anything that felt real, or made them uncomfortable.
“No, no, Imeldita. Tú si que estás mal, hija,” her mother said when Imelda suggested a Sundance selection, or that year’s Oscar winner of Best International Feature Film from some Nordic country in an alien language. No matter what Imelda said about art being a vehicle for empathy, her mother’s answer was always the same. “Ay esta niña, tan complicada. Empatía, hijita?” If Imelda’s mother wanted to suffer or feel bad about the state of the world, she could just stick to her reality.
Imelda knew this incompatibility was a direct result of the last ten years living far from home. Her parents had never left her small northern city in Mexico. While Imelda enjoyed the safety and comforts of her Manhattan neighborhood, her parents contended with la situación back home: the bodies hanging from bridges, the self-imposed curfews and ever-present militares. Her worldview was a luxury. So, she bit her tongue hard as her mother shook her head and made her customary accusatory eyes.
“Have you done interpreter work before?” asked Deborah.
In the restroom, Imelda had dried the sweat under her arms. Looking at herself in the mirror, she’d felt tempted to stuff her sleeves with toilet paper, the way she was sweating. But it would be too noticeable.
“This is my first time.” Imelda was nervous. The volunteer-vetting process included a background check and the signing of a non-disclosure agreement, but there was no formal training. Her bilingual skills were excellent, but what if there were legal terms that she didn’t know? This wasn’t only paperwork; it was a person’s life.
“Don’t worry,” said Deborah, as if sensing Imelda’s anxiety. She took a long sip of iced coffee from a clear plastic container with REUSE written in bold pink. “I’ll walk you through it.”
Deborah had arranged in advance Celso’s documents and legal forms in small, neat piles across the table. “You can start reading them while waiting. Tell me if you have any questions.”
“What’s a U visa?” asked Imelda. Of all the work visas she’d wrangled her way through her own immigration journey: TN, J1, H1b, O2, she’d never heard of that one. For ten years she’d been tied to a job that didn’t fulfill her until when Imelda finally got her green card.
“Oh, I’ll explain everything. Thankfully, I’ve prepared one of these applications. Before I started doing pro bono stuff, I’d never done any immigration work.” Deborah sat down across the table.
“What kind of law did you practice?” asked Imelda.
“Corporate litigation, mainly with investment banks,” said Deborah. “What about you? You said you quit your job recently?”
“I sold derivatives, mostly.” Imelda saw a flicker of recognition in Deborah’s eyes. “I learned a lot, but. . .” she took a deep breath and exhaled softly.
“Let me guess. You had moral dilemmas?” Deborah’s friendly voice relaxed her.
“Something like that.” Imelda smiled, observing Deborah’s outfit as discreetly as she could: a plaid skirt in a gray gradient, white silk blouse, a gray blazer and black, pointed-toe heels. It was a stark contrast to Imelda’s black jeans, black sneakers and white T-shirt. Had she taken her dislike of the corporate outfit to an extreme?
“I get it,” said Deborah, twisting her long, black hair in a bun with bobby pins. “That’s why I left.” The bobby pins still between Deborah’s lips distorted her speech slightly.
“Listen, the main thing to know about the U Visa,” Deborah continued, “is that it can be granted to a witness of a crime who agrees to work with the authorities. The idea is to—”
Imelda’s cell phone rang, cutting Deborah’s explanation short. “It’s Celso, he’s in the building,” she said.
When she hung up, Imelda asked, “So, Celso is a witness?”
“In the vast majority of the cases—as in this one,” said Deborah, whose cheerful expression changed into a solemn one, “the witness is also the victim.”
A few days before, over the phone, Imelda had found Celso’s answers to her questions unsettling. “Si. . . está bien.” There was submission in his voice but also, a hint of doubt, which became more pronounced whenever Imelda had repeated the appointment time of nine in the morning. “Si. . . está bien, voy a tratar.” Imelda didn’t like it. What did Celso mean that he would try? Either he was coming, or he wasn’t.
When Imelda left Mexico, she resented the prevalent violence, corruption and machismo. As a result, her mind had gotten good at finding self-fulfilling patterns. Tardiness and unreliability were part of the Mexican stereotype and though Imelda aimed to reverse it with her own actions, she still held it against her people. So much so that until then, a part of her had expected Celso to be a no-show.
“The victim? What happened to him?” asked Imelda, considering her previous assumptions. Before Deborah could answer, Imelda heard a knock on the glass door. When she turned, she saw a man in a wheelchair waiting for them to let him inside.
When Celso wheeled himself into the conference room, it sobered Imelda to realize how wrong she’d been about him. It had taken her forty-five minutes to get to the midtown office from where she lived in lower Manhattan. She’d taken the subway but when the train had gotten stuck at Penn Station, she’d walked out and ordered an Uber. When she had mentioned this, Deborah had thanked her profusely more than once. Imelda had patted herself on the back for what she considered a great effort.
And yet, after learning it had taken Celso almost three hours to get from his sister’s apartment in the Bronx to meet them—changing buses in a wheelchair until finally getting there—she’d felt ashamed of herself.
“So, in this meeting,” said Deborah after a brief introduction, “we’ll go over everything that happened in the night of the attack. I will also need you to sign a few forms, so I can represent you.”
Imelda translated this and Celso nodded while stretching one arm to reach for one of the cans of Coke Deborah had placed for them on the table, along with a couple of bottled waters.
“Good,” said Deborah. “I know it’s tough, Celso, but I’m going to need you to give me as many details as possible. It’s the only way I can build a strong case on your behalf.”
Interpreting, Imelda quickly learned as the meeting progressed, was a passive role. She wasn’t there to think about the questions, but to repeat them in a different language. It was not her place to react to the answers.
“La noche del incidente…” said Celso, popping the can open. He then took a long gulp.
Celso explained to Imelda that right before the attack happened, he’d worked twelve hours for one of the food delivery apps. He was tired, so he decided to call it a day. As he got ready to go home, he received a text message from his sister. She worked at a Cuban restaurant in West Harlem and Celso loved the food. There had been a mistake with an order, and the owner told his sister she could take the food back home or toss it in the trash. So, Celso didn’t think twice about picking it up.
“The Cuban restaurant was on his way to his apartment, so he said he’d be there soon,” said Imelda.
“What was the address, exactly?” Asked Deborah.
“En West Harlem, en la 139th entre Broadway y Amsterdam,” said Celso. Deborah wrote it all down.
Celso explained that when he arrived, his sister was busy. So he locked his bike at the street corner and waited for her. Soon after, he heard a group of men yelling at him. At first he didn’t get what they were saying because they spoke too fast. But when they threw a glass bottle at him, he understood they wanted to fight him. Celso told them he didn’t want any trouble but they didn’t care. They kept yelling insults at him. When he responded, angry, one of them ran and started beating him, then the others joined.
“How many men, you think, in total?” asked Deborah. “Was that first man also the one who shot you—the one who caused your injury?”
“Eran como cinco. Pero también me apuñalaron,” said Celso with a certain detachment, as if looking at his memory of the incident from a distance.
“There were around five men, but. . .” Imelda paused and gasped quietly. “They also stabbed him—¿Cómo dice?—in his left lung. First they stabbed him, then there was the gunshot. That’s the last thing he remembers. Then he woke up in the hospital bed a week later.”
It was not until Celso talked about the detectives who had taken his testimony at the hospital that Imelda heard the residual outrage in his voice.
“Los detectives pensaban que yo era pandillero,” said Celso.
“The detectives who questioned him at the hospital assumed he was a gang member.”
Imelda translated as neutrally as she could, because despite her own prejudice, she knew that her paisanos, her fellow countrymen and women, thought of hard work and decency as their most important, and sometimes, the only asset in this country. So what Imelda really absorbed with the pores of her skin, with the whole of her senses connecting her back to her roots was: We all look the same to you.
But she didn’t say that and stuck to her literal translation; to being a bridge upon for these two people to meet.
“I’m so sorry that happened to you. I really am,” said Deborah in a tone that conveyed genuine compassion.
Celso nodded in understanding, and that statement needed no translation.
Once he got out of the conference room and in the restroom, Celso let out a big sigh of relief. It was not so much that it pained him to share his story anymore–-it was that he felt weak. His mouth was dry. The Coke that the lawyer gave him wasn’t enough. Maybe he could ask the women if they had anything to eat: a granola bar or a banana. No, that was too forward. He ran the tap and filled his right hand with water and drank from it.
He wondered how much the lawyer could help. In the best-case scenario she talked about, he’d still have to wait a couple years.
It was time to go back to Mexico. His life would be simpler in Azul del Río; no more stairs to conquer, crowded buses or subway stations.
His sister worked long shifts. The solitude was becoming unbearable. This city had chewed him up and spat him back out worthless. Without an able body, he was as valuable as food leftovers, in a country notorious for its wastefulness. He often thought about all that food the coffee shop had thrown straight away, untouched; all those unknown flavors that his mother would never get to taste. He enjoyed imagining his mother’s face after tasting mayo wasabi, hummus, or those chia pudding cups they sold at the coffee shop.
“¡Esto sabe a gargajo!” he was sure his mother would say, which was what Celso had said when he’d first tried the pudding. He’d laughed hard, unable to understand why people would pay to eat something that had the texture of phlegm.
Celso had never realized before how vital it was to his soul to feel seen. He was not exactly a person of substance back in Azul del Río, but he had not been invisible. New York City had made him a ghost; a bike-riding ghost with an insulated box attached to his back and an intimate knowledge of the city grid.
¡Pedaléale, güey! ¡Pedaléale, güey!
Doors had opened and shut before him all day, with the one constant: the light of the cell phone screen reflected in the customers’ eyes, visible to Celso in the brief moment the door remained ajar. Then the meal exchanged hands and the door shut in front of him again. When was the last time he received a cash tip? He could not tell for sure, maybe a year before the incident?
Sometimes a customer would ask him something like “How’s your night going?” He’d nod and smile shyly. There’d been times when a customer spoke Spanish and said apologetic things about the weather, as if suddenly realizing that the person before them had pedaled their meal through the pouring rain or the menacing cold. Those were rare instances. Now that his height had been folded in half, he had lost any hope of being seen.
While Celso was in the restroom, Deborah explained to Imelda that the majority of the undocumented immigrants she worked with believed that because they’d gotten into this country illegally, they deserved to be treated unfairly.
“My job is to remind them that they have rights too,” she added emphatically.
“Of course,” said Imelda as she took out her thermos flask from her backpack. She had forgotten about her chamomile tea, which had been too hot to drink earlier. She looked at the clock. It was almost noon. She was hungry. There was a great coffee place nearby. She craved one of those muffins. But she needed to be careful. She couldn’t keep buying six-dollar lattes and expensive muffins every day without a job.
Deborah’s gaze shifted and she stood up to open the door for Celso again. “Anyway,” she said as Celso wheeled himself in, “we can go over the details of your employment history at our meeting next week.”
“Yo quiero ser honesto,” Celso said. “La verdad no creo que venga.”
“He says he wants to be honest with you. He doesn’t think he’ll come back next week,” said Imelda.
“Why?” asked Deborah.
Celso explained that he was too tired: tired of paperwork, of depending on others, of feeling useless. He wanted to go back home to his family.
“He came today hoping the process would be quicker, or that you could get him health benefits. At the physical therapy center, they told him there was a way he could walk again, and then he could work. Otherwise he doesn’t want to stay in the U.S.. He feels like he’s a burden to his sister. He’s bored and depressed.”
“Let me get back to you about health benefits. Maybe there’s a way. If the U visa gets approved, you could be qualified for Medicare. Would that be something of your interest?”
“Yes,” Imelda said.
Imelda noticed Celso lift his bottom from the chair slightly by pressing his forearms on the armrests, and rocking it back and forth in a delicate motion. She thought of her father; the countless hours she spent as a child, accompanying him on his hospital rounds, helping patients find their medication in the free samples bin. Imelda knew Celso did that to activate blood circulation and avoid getting bedsores.
Imelda’s father had also grown up in a rural village, Las Tunas, in the north of Mexico, where Imelda had spent most weekends of her childhood. A week earlier, she’d called her parents to tell them how unhappy and hollow she felt at her job. But Imelda’s father didn’t understand it. “Hollow? When I was a medical student, I’d go up a hill and scream into the void until my voice was gone. It distracted me from being so hungry.”
And you? You starve yourself on purpose, said Imelda’s father in her head. Like Celso, her father had spent most of his youth worrying about basic survival. So how could Imelda justify her life choices—even her yearning, for meaning?
You’re the honors student, the good girl. You work hard. Drop all this purposeless bullshit!
“I do hope you’re willing to come back next week, so we can go over your affidavit,” said Deborah.
Celso thanked her but he didn’t say he would.
When Imelda offered to push his chair along the three uphill avenues between the charity’s office and his bus stop on Lexington, Celso was relieved. He felt weak. Save for the Coke the attorney had offered him during the meeting, his stomach was empty. When Imelda started pushing, Celso whispered towards the heavens a note of gratitude: for the ride but mostly, for the new wheelchair he’d received barely days before. The old wheelchair would have certainly embarrassed him, its left wheel so unreliable that it had sprung off the axle midway more than once. It had taken a whole year of paperwork, but the new chair, a donation from the Crime Victim Agency, was much better.
Imelda was pretty. It was a real shame he couldn’t look at her as she pushed him. Celso couldn’t see her face when he asked her where she was from, but she sounded surprised by his question.
“¿Yo? ¡Soy Mexicana!” she said in a strong northern accent that Celso hadn’t placed until then. All his life he’d been an avid listener of rancheras. Whenever he’d listen to radio interviews of his favorite singers, they all spoke with that same accent.
Celso told Imelda he had thought she was Colombian or maybe from Spain. The exchange wasn’t perfect because he couldn’t really see her and he struggled to hear her, against all the loud city street noises: bulldozers and drilling, honks and shouts of angry drivers.
Imelda asked him about Azul del Río and what he would do if he went back there. Celso was not talkative, but he told her what he could.
“I owe a lot of money to my sister and her husband. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to pay them back.”
“I see,” Imelda said. “Do you miss it there?”
“I do. I guess I’m both nervous and excited to go back.”
When they arrived at the bus stop, Celso assumed Imelda would get going. He didn’t expect her to stay next to him as he waited.
Imelda asked him how he felt about filing for the U visa. “As I said, I don’t think I’ll be coming back for the next meeting. The process is too complicated. It will take too much time, too long without healthcare or an income. I don’t see the point. I’ve made up my mind. I’m going back to Mexico.”
It stung a little bit that Imelda would use the respectful form usted in Spanish, putting distance between them, but Celso understood that she was trying to stay professional, for the lines not to be blurred. Though as time passed, she became chattier and pressed him for more details about his village. Where would he live? Did his family have a huertito? What about hens and chickens? What would he do? What kind of fruit trees grew near his house? Were Los Zetas gone from that territory? She’d heard some gruesome stories about killings and kidnappings. Did his family think it would be safe now?
“I talked to one of my brothers about opening a barber shop,” said Celso.
“That’s a great idea.” Imelda smiled.
Celso didn’t understand why Imelda was trying so hard to talk to him—did she pity him? She was nice, but he was tired and all he really wanted was to wait for his bus in silence. He had a lot to think about. He was going to the Mexican consulate straight from there. He’d talked to a person there over the phone and she’d told him they could help him find a cheap flight back to Mexico. It was already May. If he waited one more month the rainy season would begin and he wouldn’t be able to get back for a while. There were no paved roads in his village, only dirt roads. His mind was preoccupied when Imelda started telling him about her father’s village. Celso was skeptical.
“You don’t look like a person who comes from a village,” he told her.
“There are many villages in la sierra where it’s common for people to have light eyes and fair skin. There’s a nickname in my hometown for people like me,” she said. “They call us güeros de rancho.”
“¿Ah, si?” Celso smiled.
“My father grew up in one of those villages. As a kid, he would tend to the animals early in the morning and then go to school. In the afternoons, he rode a mule from his village to the busiest road and sold tamales.”
Celso was surprised by Imelda’s revelation, by how lively she got when she talked about her father’s village. Her eyes shone a mix of nostalgia and pride. Maybe she cared about learning his story. And yet, he got a sense that it wasn’t really him who she was trying to understand, but herself.
“What does your father do now?” asked Celso.
“He’s a doctor.”
“A doctor, really?” Celso wanted to find something to relate to in Imelda’s story, but even if he believed that her father had grown up in a poor village, their current lives were far from similar.
“He saves children’s lives.” That last bit she said almost inwardly, in a way that Celso understood was more for her than for him.
Imelda thought back to Las Tunas, replaying the images of all those village women lining up outside her father’s old house with their children in tow, because the word had gone out that the Dotorsito had arrived. She would not see her father for the entire weekend. But she would take pride in watching all those smiling children, skipping around the village plaza and happily licking their paletas; those lollipops her father had made a special detour to buy on their way into town.
She remembered the day when, as a grown woman already living in New York, she’d been back to Las Tunas with her father and a man had stopped to greet them. The man had looked down at them from his seat on the saddle of his macho; the brood of a horse and a donkey. On the sides of the animal protruded two overflowing sacks filled with calabacitas. The man had looked at her father, then at her and said in his norteño accent, his words phrased as a question but really, more as a statement, in a voice that contained a mix of disdain, respect and aspiration, “What did you use to sell back when, Dotorsito?”
“Tamales,” said Imelda’s father matter-of-factly, holding his head high.
“Tamales,” repeated the man, looking at him as if to say, But look at you now.
When the bus arrived, Imelda signaled the driver to lower the platform for Celso. Then she pushed him all the way inside, asking people to clear the way for him, like the bodyguard of an important person, then she waved goodbye from the bus stop. Celso kept his expression neutral, curling his mouth to the side just a little bit. Would she remember him? Celso thought about all the people who had passed through his life in the last eight years. Life was so quiet and slow in Azul del Río, nothing much ever happened there. Maybe this U visa thing wasn’t such a bad idea after all. At least it would keep his options open.
After Celso’s bus left, Imelda walked to a nearby bench. Her cell phone vibrated again. This time she took the call.
Natalia Sandoval is a Mexican writer based in New York City, where she previously worked as an economist. She writes both literary and speculative fiction, exploring issues relating to identity, immigration, class, and the nature of time. She’s currently at work on a novel set in the late 90s and early aughts between Culiacan, Mexico (the epicenter of drug-related violence) and New York City.